October 22 2005

Chick was a war hero and had the scars to prove it. He wore glasses with dark green lenses and fingerless gloves, one of which was attached to a spring-loaded contraption that helped an otherwise useless left hand grip the tools of his trade.
He lived in North Walls but scraped a living in the early 1950s cleaning windows and doing odd jobs around Sidney Avenue, Plant Crescent and neighbouring streets on the recently completed council estate at Silkmore.
His war hero status may or may not have been deserved. But to me and my friends, his injuries, about which he never once uttered a word, were evidence enough of bravery above and beyond. He was the right age to have served and our imaginations filled in the gaps.
His glasses and leather gloves were as good as medals and we knew that he’d earned them at Monte Casino, El Alamein or at the hands of some demon guard in Changi Jail or Colditz.
We followed him everywhere and he liked our company. He showed us how to whittle with a penknife, how to use a fretsaw and he encouraged us to draw, all skills at which he excelled. Once he helped me build a puppet theatre and completed it with a perfect painting of Mickey Mouse above the proscenium arch. A few days later he presented me with a wooden skeleton marionette, hand crafted and finished beautifully in silver and black.
In a more cynical world, Chick’s easy way with the young might have been considered suspect, but it was fairly typical of the times.
Alf, the Co-op milkman, didn’t have the credentials of Chick, but he had something almost as good: a horse.
Some of us would wait for him at the top end of the street and help him with his deliveries. In return, he’d let us sit on the float and, if he was in a particularly good mood, pass us the reins.
Perched on a crate, we rode shotgun fearlessly and walked home with heads full of Wells Fargo. Later they replaced the horse and cart with an electric trolley and after that it just wan’t the same, so Alf lost most of his team.
But there were many others with whom we struck up passing friendships.We were on first name terms with the men who delivered the bread, the vegetables and the fresh fish.
The insurance man was the exception, an aloof figure who worked for the Royal London and called on Friday nights, leaving his bicycle propped against the hedge while he knocked for his weekly one and threepence. He wore a dark blue belted mac, a trilby and tucked his trousers in his socks in lieu of cycle clips.
To my family he was known simply as Mind-the-Ink, a nickname my mother bestowed because this was the warning he gave each week as he handed back the open collecting book, having made his entry with a fountain pen.
One night, encouraged by sniggering friends, I let his front tyre down and we hid and watched as he mounted up and rode away, apparently unaware of what I’d done. He walked back a few minutes later pushing his bike, obviously believing he had a puncture.
It was a mean trick and one we would never have played on Chick.

 

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